Mark Miller on “the leadership game”: An interview by Bob Morris

Miller, MarkIn his own words….

I began writing over decade ago when I was fortunate to team up with Ken Blanchard on my first book, The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do. Since then I’ve co-authored a second book with Ken, Great Leaders Grow. Since then, I’ve released The Secret of Teams, The Heart of Leadership, and my latest, Chess Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game. With more than 700,000 books in print, covering almost 30 languages, I’m delighted to serve leaders through my writing.

In addition to writing, I love speaking to leaders. Over the years, I’ve traveled to dozens of countries for several international organizations encouraging and equipping leaders.

I also sell chicken. I started my Chick-fil-A career working as an hourly team member back in 1977. In 1978, I joined the corporate staff working in the warehouse and mailroom. Since then, I’ve provided leadership for Corporate Communications, Field Operations, Quality and Customer Satisfaction, Training and Development, and Organizational Effectiveness. Today I serve as the Vice President of Leadership Development. During my time with Chick-fil-A, annual sales have grown to over $5 billion.

I’ve been married to my high school sweetheart, Donna, for more than 30 years and we have two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a beautiful granddaughter.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Chess Not Checkers?

Miller: In 2010, I was in a strategic planning meeting with our leadership team. We were discussing the year 2020. The question was asked: “What do we want to be true in 2020 that isn’t true today?” I loved that question! The conversation that followed revealed our historical bias to serve our senior leaders. This had been a great strategy over the years but the growing complexity of our organization demanded a new approach. We made a shift from just building leadership capacity to building organizational capacity. The moves outlined in Chess Not Checkers are the result of our 4-year journey to determine how to unleash the passion, energy and creativity of the entire organization. We wanted to create High Performance Organizations.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Miller: We had scores of revelations during the research and writing of this project. For me, one of the biggest aha moments came when we saw the impact of alignment. One of our most significant findings was many front line workers didn’t know why what they were doing mattered. They don’t know the goals of the organization. They don’t know the values. They don’t know the key strategies. In many cases there was a total disconnect between leadership and the front line. When leaders began to close this gap, performance improved almost immediately! In the game of chess, a coordinated attack is always preferred to a fragmented one. This insight led to the second move we found in in High Performance Organizations: they act as One.

Morris: That reminds me of Saint Paul’s discussion of “many parts, one body” in First Corinthians. To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Miller: We learned so much during the research for this book, my instinct was to include too much detail in the book. My publisher challenged me to simplify the book – repeatedly. My editor said, “You’re not writing a Field Guide here!” So, the book did morph substantially as I slowly eliminated much of the tactical ideas. The good news for readers, I saved all that content. Much of it is now available in the Chess Not Checkers Field Guide.

Morris: In my review of the book for various websites, I suggest that all executives must now be able to play checkers or chess, depending on the nature and extent of complexity of the given situation. Your own thoughts about this?

Miller: I agree completely. The challenge for many leaders is they are slow to realize when the change from checkers to chess is needed. As I talk about in the book, problems are often the clue you’re playing the wrong game. Do you find yourself blindsided by significant problems? Are you responding to the same problems over and over again? Do you find your quality of life suffering? If so, it may be time to learn an entirely new game.

Morris: About 20 years ago at one of GE’s annual meetings, its then chairman and CEO was asked why he admires small companies so much. Here’s Jack Welch’s response:

“For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

Here’s my question. In your opinion, how relevant are these comments in 2015? Please explain.

Miller: I agree with Jack. Not because he articulated great tactics but because he shared timeless values: Communication, Speed, Transparency and Stewardship – none of these will ever go out of style or lose their relevance.

Morris: Although you again frame information, insights, and counsel within the structure of a story in Checkers Not Chess – setting, characters, plot developments, conflicts and climax, etc. – you focus on real-world situations with which your readers can identify. For example, here are some questions that you address in the book. Please respond briefly to each.

First, how best to identify the most important questions to ask and the most difficult to solve?

Miller: I encourage leaders to intentionally cultivate the skill of asking great questions. This has been a life-long pursuit for me. I have no silver bullet to offer. However, I often encourage leaders to double the number of questions they ask in a given day. This will accomplish at least two things: you will listen more and the people around you will have to think more.

Morris: How best to identify those answers and solutions?

Miller: I’m a huge fan of teams. Over the years, the best way I’ve discovered to find outstanding answers to challenging questions is to involve a team. A well-functioning team will outperform individual effort virtually every time. And, teams are at their best when they combine the talents, gifts, experiences, passions, expertise and energy to solve the organizations most vexing problems. Here’s a rule of thumb: Leaders solve easy problems – hard problems belong to the team.

Morris: How to balance collective judgment with individual initiative?

Miller: I think these are totally compatible. Even when teams are performing at their best, there is always room for individual initiative – the more the better. If you want more initiative, recognize and reward it – you’ll see more of it.

Morris: Every “game” has its rules and some games are more complicated than others. How to decide which game to play and how best to play it?

Miller: This is a tricky question. I think you must chose the game based on your objectives and circumstances you face. What makes this difficult is the high probability we will choose the wrong game. Many leaders have chosen poorly. That’s the story of Blake, the main character in Chess Not Checkers, he made a bad decision. His choice was informed by his bias more than a firm grasp of reality and what was required. The good news for Blake, and any leader, we can learn a new game. Bottom line: choose a game that enables you to dominate your competition for years to come. I recommend Chess Not Checkers.

Morris: How to keep score? That is, how to measure what is most important?

Miller: I’ve written quite a bit about this on my blog: Most recently, I just completed a couple of posts on How to Create a Game Changing Scorecard. What’s most important about this question is the fact leaders and organizations must keep score. If we don’t keep score, we can’t win.

Morris: How to create a sense of urgency to obtain buy-in for proposed action?

Miller: I wrote about this in The Secret of Teams. Just because a leader has a good idea does not mean it will be embraced. For real change to occur, people need Motivation, Information and Assistance. Leaders are responsible for all three. The Motivation comes from one of three sources: Vision, Pain or Fear of Future Consequences. Sometimes leaders can choose which of these they wish to employ; other times, the world forces our hand. Regardless of the motivation, it must be present. Couple this with the information and assistance and people most people can change.

Morris: How to create a sense of “One for all, all for one”?

Miller: This is another big question. Four of the five books I’ve written to date each speak to a facet of this question. Here’s a gross oversimplification of process: Select the right people, paint a compelling picture of the future, assign each person to work that fits their passion and strengths, focus everyone on the same objectives, treat them as individuals, help them grow, build systems and structures to support their success, and lead them well with a servant’s heart. If you can do these things well, together you will crush your competition.

Morris: How to get talent and work in proper alignment?

Miller: Alignment, or lack thereof, is not a talent issue, it is a leadership issue. Alignment is about leaders agreeing on goals and strategies, communicating well and managing the edges. Misalignment exists when leaders allow it to exist.

Morris: How to know when to stay the course, change it, or end the given “journey”?

Miller: My favorite book on this topic is Henry Cloud’s Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Oder to Move Forward. He believes, and I agree, the ability to make the hard call is what separates the elite leaders in the world from all the others. I’ve read his book more than once… and I’ll continue to read it.

Morris: To what extent should a “turnaround mindset” be sustained after a turnaround has been achieved?

Miller: I think the answer depends on how you define a the term. Successful turnarounds have two common elements – three if you count exemplary leadership. The other two ingredients are a rock solid operations plan AND a comprehensive communications plan. As a leader, why wouldn’t I want both of these in place forever? Even if the business didn’t demand a traditional “turnaround,” I believe these are two necessary elements for any organization to thrive. Unfortunately, many organizations see communications as an afterthought as opposed to a strategic lever to drive performance. It is one of the biggest gaps I see in organizations struggling to perform at higher levels.

Morris: Of all the great knowledge leaders throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Miller: Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats. At last count, he holds more than 3,200 patients. His inventions include the floppy disk, the CD, the DVD, the digital watch, Cinemascope, and the taxicab meter. In a 2012 interview, he described himself at “mid-life” at age 78. I love his spirit! As a leader, we are the architects of the future. For me, and many leaders, our innovation muscles are underdeveloped.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Chess Not Checkers and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

Miller: Hundreds of leaders have already asked that same question. My answer: you need to be grounded in your current reality before you begin to chart your course forward. To facilitate this process, I’ve created an assessment that leaders can use to be sure they are addressing the most pressing issues on their journey to high performance.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Chess Not Checkers, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Miller: The challenge and value of embracing Chess Not Checkers are relevant to organizations of all sizes. However, the greatest need probably exists in small businesses. Often, leaders in these organizations have come from small beginnings. During these times, checkers was the name of the game. The reason many small businesses struggle and many more fail, is the failure of the leader to abandon the checkers mentality and embrace a new game. The four moves are a proven path to higher levels of performance. My challenge to leaders… It really is your move!

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Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website:

Great Leaders Serve & Chess Not Checkers link

Mark’s Amazon page link

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1 Comment

  1. […] Mark Miller on “the leadership game”: An interview by Bob Morris. I began writing over decade ago when I was fortunate to team up with Ken Blanchard on my first book, The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do. Since then I’ve co-authored a second book with Ken, Great Leaders Grow. Since then, I’ve released The Secret of Teams, The Heart of Leadership, and my latest, Chess Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game. With more than 700,000 books in print, covering almost 30 languages, I’m delighted to serve leaders through my writing. […]

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